The Olympics loom for Oscar Pistorius http://espn.go.com/espn/commentary/story/_/page/how ard-110804/oscar-pistorius-meets-olympic-qualifying-standard-400-meter-timerenew s-controversy-prosthetic-legs June 13, 2012
Martin Hunter/Getty ImagesThis is Oscar Pistorius' medal haul at the IPC World Championships in January. Next: the IAAF worlds. You hope the murmuring and arguing that has already restarted now that Oscar Pistorius has done the remarkable, the extraordinary, the heretofore unfathomable will not drag him down between now and the 2012 London Olympics. Because what Pistorius, a double-amputee sprinter, was able to do on a muggy night in Lignano, Italy, on July 19 is the sort of mind-blowing achievement that shouldn't be unfairly derailed by this unsettled debate. He thought he had already navigated it once, but now it's likely to trail the 24-year-old South African all the way to next year's Olympic Summer Games. The preposterous-sounding question that continues to chase Pistorius with each step he takes has to be the most counter-intuitive argument ever made in sports: Could it possibly be true that a double-amputee is able to run faster than world-class able-bodied sprinters because of -- and not in spite of -- his carbon-fiber prosthetic legs that attach just below his knees? AP PhotoThis race in Lignano, Italy, qualified Pistorius to compete in the World Championships later this month. Disbelief alone doesn't necessarily make it untrue. But some of the best scientists in the world continue to disagree on whether Pistorius' rudimentary prostheses (his nickname is "Blade Runner") give him an advantage, even though he has twice voluntarily submitted to rigorous physiological and biomechanical testing on everything from his rate of fatigue (which is the same as other worldclass runners) to the power he generates with each footfall (appreciably lower) to his leg stride frequency (which he repeats faster than biologically intact runners do). And until science has a better idea of how to quantify a marvel such as Pistorius, the only choice seems to be -- has to be -- to let him run. Right? So why is all of this an issue again? Because when Pistorius shaved an extraordinary half-second off his personal best in the 400 meters and ran a winning time of 45.07 seconds against able-bodied athletes at that small meet in Lignano last month, it put him below the "A" qualifying standard of 45.25 that allows him to race for the first time at this month's World Championships (Aug. 27-Sept. 4 in South Korea) and is also used for the 2012 Summer Games. Pistorius needs to run the "A" standard twice next season before the London Games to meet the South African Olympic Committee's automatic selection criteria; he could also run in the Games if his 400-meter time is in the top three among his countrymen.
The re-ignited debate around Pistorius is sure to pick up even more steam when more people realize his time in Lignano would have placed him fifth in the 400-meter final at the 2008 Beijing Games and fourth at the 2009 World Championships. As Pistorius' defenders dryly note, he has become almost too good for his own good. "What concerns me is not only that this is just going to regurgitate the bile that came up before, but there is almost a witch hunt pace to it," said Aimee Mullins, a retired American Paralympic sprinter who is also a bilateral amputee and 10 years ago competed on the same "Cheetah" prostheses Pistorius uses now. Mullins, who later became president of the Women's Sports Foundation and is scheduled to serve as a chef de mission for the U.S. team at the London Olympics, added, "At times, I think, 'Wow.' We're really still living in this place where people get away with saying, 'I don't want to play with you,' because in whatever way -- be it consciously or, I think, perhaps more subconsciously -- they think, 'I see you as my inferior. I can't lose to you.' There's so much of that in this issue, it reminds me in some ways of what happened in the 1950s with Jackie Robinson and racial integration in baseball, or Billie Jean King and gender integration in sports." [+] Enlarge Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty ImagesWarming up before a meet in the Eastern Czech city of Ostrava in May. Roger Black, a former British 400-meter runner, said in a BBC interview Pistorius should not race because, "We are not seeing 'like' against 'like.'" But Britain's best active 400-meter man, Martyn Rooney, who finished sixth in Beijing, told England's Observer newspaper that if he were beaten by Pistorius in London, "I wouldn't be too bothered. I'd be a lot angrier if, say, someone who had failed a drugs test beat me. Oscar has not gone out of his way to cheat. This is his situation: He needs to run with those blades. He can modify things in ways that we can't, but there's things we can do that he can't. So it balances out quite well. "The athletes who complain are the ones who aren't running fast enough." Even the seven experts on a volunteer team that Pistorius marshaled to win his 2008 appeal of an IAAF (the world governing body for track and field) decision to ban him from running against able-bodied athletes don't concur on what the science shows. All of them provided their unpaid help to Pistorius on the condition they would independently reach their own conclusions and retain the right to publish their work when his last-resort appeal of the IAAF ruling to the Court of Arbitration in Sport (CAS) was done. While all seven agreed the specific scientific report the IAAF used to ban Pistorius was faulty -- which was the only (and very narrow) criteria argued in his appeal before the CAS -- the same experts have since admitted they disagree on the bigger issue of whether Pistorius gets any sort of advantage from his prostheses. The different views are succinctly explained in this point/counterpoint debate that appeared in the Journal of Applied Physiology. Perhaps the most contentious assertion, Peter Weyand, an associate professor of applied physiology and biomechanics at Southern Methodist University, and Matthew Bundle, now an assistant professor at the University of Montana, have argued that, among other things, Pistorius enjoys as much as a 10 to 12 second advantage in a 400meter race using his prosthetic legs, for reasons Weyand says have to do with the frequency of how quickly Pistorius is able reposition his lightweight legs as he strides; the force he exerts; the longer length of time each of his prosthetic feet remains on the ground; and reduced ground force requirements to attain the same sprinting speeds. [+] Enlarge Franck Fife/AFP/Getty ImagesIn an IAAF Diamond League meet in France in early July, Pistorius, right, finsihed fifth. The Bahamas' Christopher Brown, second from left, won; American Jeremy Warner, left, finished fourth. "You can collect more data, but the answers about Oscar Pistorius are in, in my opinion," Weyand said in a phone interview Tuesday. "He is able to run faster than many of his competitors even though he does not hit the ground as hard." To which Hugh Herr of MIT, another member of the Pistorius research group, retorts, "It baffles me why Weyand and Bundle
continue to say that." Herr, an associate professor and director of MIT's biomechatronics research group, argues, "You really have to have rigorous, peer-reviewed, published, carefully examined scientific evidence. [Weyand-Bundle's argument] is simply a calculation, nearly a back-of-the-envelope calculation. To label it as a scientific study is very misleading. â€Ś Their calculation was never published in a peer-reviewed paper. It was in the point/counterpoint article, which was not rigorously peer-reviewed." So the debate about Pistorius lives on. But how much does it still matter? Other than perhaps inhibiting his training -- as the IAAF controversy and CAS fight did back in 2008, when he admitted it dragged him down emotionally ("It's been completely on this kid's back to prove everything himself so he can run," Mullins says) -- the griping needn't stop him. "As far as we are concerned, the CAS decision is final and the case is closed, as long as he continues to compete on the same prosthetic legs the CAS ruled on," insisted Jeffrey Kessler, the New York-based attorney who took on Pistorius' case on a pro bono basis and represents the National Basketball Player's Association and NFL Players Association in their labor negotiations. "I spoke to Oscar on the phone the other day and I've committed to him that when he runs in London, I will be there. To me, this is about the rights of the disabled. He is one of the most inspiring people I've ever met in my life." Weyand has been careful to stress that he admires Pistorius, too, and finds the man and his accomplishments "absolutely extraordinary." But Weyand considers himself just a scientist doing his job, and added that nothing he has asserted, "should in any way diminish what Oscar has done." But Herr -- again stressing what science still doesn't know -- said, "To ban a human being from the Olympic Games, you really have to know what you're talking about. In the case of Oscar Pistorius, current scientific evidence does not suggest such an overall advantage, and thus a ban on Oscar Pistorius is not justified." [+] Enlarge Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty ImagesCould be that the people opposed to Pistorius competing against able-bodied sprinters are the ones who can't beat him. It's hard to imagine Kessler would allow Pistorius to submit to further tests since he's been already won the right to compete. Whatever trouble Pistorius is likely to encounter going forward is most likely to be in the court of public opinion. And anyone inclined to form an opinion -- or just interested in seeing a human being do something remarkable -- really should watch the video of his Lignano race. The camera vantage point is situated behind the runners as they load themselves into the starting blocks. When they rise at the crack of the gun, it's hard to tell which of them is Pistorius until he comes spinning out of the first turn in Lane 2 -- the first good view of his L-shaped prostheses. By the time he's done powering down the backstretch, a voice on the video starts to excitedly say, "That's Pistorius!" He is gaining ground, gaining ground then passing the runners around him. By the time they come sling-shotting out of the final turn and are heading into the homestretch -- always the greatest moment in a good track race -- Pistorius has passed the last of his opponents. And when he hits the finish tape and looks at his time, he breaks into a dazed smile, as if he is thinking, "Could this really be happening?" Pistorius later admitted it felt "surreal" to see he had met the Olympic qualifying standard. Second-place finisher Lanceford Spence, a Jamaican, comes rushing up to Pistorius, clapping and smiling and finally embracing him in a bear hug that sends both men falling to the track. Pistorius had done it, all right. And he is not done yet. Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. MORE COMMENTARY Âť Follow Johnette Howard on Twitter: @johnettehoward
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LET EM PLAY http://sports.espn.go.com/espnmag/story?id=3357051
June 13, 2012
by Eric Adelson
Carlos Serrao The dream continues. [Ed's note: For a photo gallery of athletes using prosthetics, please go here .] [Ed's note 2: To read related content on whether being "disadvantaged" has now morphed into an "advantage" for athletes, please go here .] The future of sports sits in a Massachusetts basement, down the hall from a roomful of Legos. The future of sports is happening in a cavernous building in Iceland. The future of sports lies under the bed of a 13-year-old boy with no legs in Florida. The basement: It's in the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, and it's full of metal gizmos that surround an equation-covered whiteboard. A bilateral amputee professor named Hugh Herr works here. If anyone can predict what sports will look
whiteboard. A bilateral amputee professor named Hugh Herr works here. If anyone can predict what sports will look like in 2050, it's Herr, who lost his legs 26 years ago in a climbing accident. Herr wears robotic limbs with motorized ankles and insists he doesn't want his human legs back because soon they'll be archaic. "People have always thought the human body is the ideal," he says. "It's not." The building: It's the home of Ossur, a prosthetics-design firm in Reykjavik. Researchers here are developing limbs that rely on Bluetooth technology to "know" how to move. While the able-bodied don't need to tell their legs to run up steps, amputees must will their prosthetics to make every movement. But just because the limbs are gone doesn't mean the remaining nerves have stopped working. Scientists want to wire artificial legs and arms into the nervous system and make them part of the body itself. Already, a below-the-knee amputee at Ossur walks uphill and downhill on a treadmill. He dances. He kicks a soccer ball. He bends it like Beckham. Soon, prosthetics wearers will be able to turn, cut and twist, motions difficult with current technology but essential in most sports. Next-gen research will shift from replacing the human leg to improving it, just as pharmaceuticals have shifted from restoring to enhancing. Why stop at a better hairline when we can make a better thigh? The boy: His name is Anthony Burruto. He's 13 and has no idea what's happening in those labs. But you can bet he wants the technology if it means his two fake legs will work as well as his right arm, which can hurl a baseball scary fast. Little League opponents agree not to bunt when Burruto takes the mound. But soon he might have better legs than any of them. Soon there will be no need to change the rules so disabled boys can play with regular kids. Soon officials will be forced to wrestle with this question: How can able-bodied kids keep up with the superabled? And when that day comes, when the basement and the building and the boy come together, sports will change forever. THE PLATES are already shifting. On Jan. 14, the IAAF banned South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius from the Olympics because tests found that his Cheetah Flex-Foot legs, which look like J-shape spatulas, give him an advantage over runners with human legs. Sprinting on his carbon prosthetics, Pistorius looks to be bounding on springs. The IAAF study says the Cheetahs are more efficient than human legs, so Pistorius uses less oxygen than similarly fast able-bodied runners. In essence, the IAAF's contention is that running is too easy for him, so the governing body banned "any technical ... device that provides the user with an advantage over another athlete " Pistorius' Olympic dream was crushed before he had a chance to qualify at his country's trials. Already, effects of the ruling have cascaded down: The NCAA, which used to stipulate only that the metal part of a prosthetic be covered for safety, has adopted the IAAF rule for track and field and left open the possibility for "rules more stringent than [those of] the international authority." While artificial-limbed athletes worry about creeping regulations meant to keep them at the fringe of competitive sports, the able-bodied fear a slippery slope that begins with prosthetics and ends who knows where. "Next will be another device," IAAF development director Elio Locatelli has said, "where people can fly with something on their back." Such critics see athletes like Pistorius, once inspiring, as a threat to fairness. Sports have always been about progress: higher, faster, stronger. Technology, though, is quickly outpacing evolution, and few know how to respond. So we draw arbitrary lines: Creatine is fine, but HGH is not. Reading lips is fine, but videotaping pregame walk-throughs is not. A titanium rod beneath the skin is fine, but a prosthetic leg is not. We want our athletes to be superior, but not so superior that our children can't grow up to be just like them. It's why accused steroids users trumpet their reliance on "hard work," as if hard work and performance-enhancing drugs didn't reinforce each other like diet and exercise. We can all work hard, but drugs are a leap many won't take. One is essentially human, the other essentially technological. The reaction to Pistorius is part support and part fear, and both are understandable. Athletes with prosthetics are admirably human and frighteningly inhuman. "Are we entering a posthuman era in sports?" asks sports ethicist Cesar Torres. "So far, the changes in the human body have been by evolution. Technology is enabling the human body to adapt in ways we couldn't dream 50 years ago." The truth is that it's much too late to stop the technological bus. The dictionary defines a prosthetic as "a device, either external or implanted, that substitutes for or supplements a missing or defective part of the body." By that measure, prosthetics are already used in sports. A swim cap is a prosthetic; it smooths the "defective" surface of a swimmer's head, making it more hydrodynamic. So is Speedo's new LZR Racer, which makes a swimmer more buoyant. Since the suit was introduced, records have fallen like rocks in a landslide, but the sport's governing body decided it was legal. So why, exactly, is the suit okay but Pistorius' legs are not? Even more surprising, USA Track & Field has worked with Nike to test carbon-sole shoe implants that harness energy normally lost when a runner's foot pushes off. Americans wore the shoes in the Sydney Olympics, meaning able-bodied sprinters have already used the type of carbon-infused prosthetics that got Pistorius banned. What's the difference between carbon shoes and carbon tibiae? Fashion? "It's a borderline case," says USOC sports technologist Peter Vint. "We're continuing to ask if that's legal or not." The bottom line is this: Sports do not need knee-jerk segregation, they need rational and fair regulation. Every organized sport begins the same way, with the creation of rules. We then establish technological limits, as with horsepower in auto racing, stick curvature in hockey, bike weight in cycling. As sports progress, those rules are sometimes altered. The USGA, for instance, responded to advances in club technology by legalizing metal heads in the early '80s. In Chariots of Fire, the hero comes under heavy scrutiny for using his era's version of steroids: a coach, at a time when the sport frowned upon outside assistance. So if we can adjust rules of sports to the time, why not for
prosthetics? Create a panel of scientists and athletes, able-bodied and disabled, and ask them to determine what's fair. One example: We know the maximum energy return of the human ankle, so that measurement could be the limit for the spring of a prosthetic ankle. That type of consideration is much fairer than simply locking out an entire group of athletes. "Not allowing someone to compete who is using his own power is a big thing to say," says Steve Novick, a U.S. Senate candidate from Oregon who has a prosthetic left hand. "You are denying the right to the pursuit of happiness in a fundamental way." Many will disagree with this line of thinking. Some will complain that only the disabled have access to prosthetic limbs, while everyone can lace on space-age shoes. (Everyone who can afford them, that is.) Others will fret that some athletes might cut off a limb to gain a prosthetic advantage. And they just might. Young pitchers, after all, have already started opting for preemptive Tommy John surgery because it makes tendons stronger. Tiger Woods also went the elective-surgery route to gain an edge on the links: LASIK surgery, to be exact, which can improve vision beyond 20/20. Anthony Gonzalez, meanwhile, is an undersized receiver for the Colts who sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber to saturate his blood with oxygen and gain fourth-quarter stamina. Is any of this fair? Advocates for the able-bodied will say that these athletes don't have fake parts; their advantages are natural, unlike those offered by prosthetics and performance-enhancing drugs. Never mind that testosterone, produced naturally in the body, is a steroid. Never mind that some athletes produce more testosterone and so have more steroids than others. And never mind those other "unnatural" aids that we accept. Like contacts. And screws in knees. And titanium hips. And cochlear implants. But those are all restorative measures, some might say; they do not confer an unfair advantage. But what is a prosthetic knee for the war vet â€” who was born with legs â€” if not restorative? What's the difference between an amputee with a prosthetic and a lineman who has lost and regained use of his limbs? Or a point guard with a pacemaker? If a right wing loses an eye, would we make him wear a patch on the ice even if a mechanical eye allowed him to see off of it? "When you replace somebody's bone and it's under the skin, you can't even tell," says Penn State sports science professor emeritus Charles Yesalis. "What are we going to do, start X-raying people?" Prosthetics technology doesn't threaten sports, in part because advances can be regulated to ensure fairness. What does threaten sports is injury. If we resist body-enhancing technology, will we outlaw prosthetic ACLs when science produces them? If Bills tight end Kevin Everett could play again with a prosthetic spine, would you tell him no? Think long and hard before you answer. Bioethicist Andy Miah predicts that one day, "it will be an imperative, and the responsible course of action, to reinforce one's body through prosthesis when competing at an elite level." In other words, all pros will have engineered body parts. History will view the steroids witch hunt as a silly attempt to keep athletes from using technology to help regenerate after a season of pain. "In many ways, we're facing the advent of the bionic man," says MLS commissioner Don Garber. "It's something our industry has to start thinking about." And if practical medical need doesn't push the envelope, money will. Colleges and team owners will welcome ads slapped on prosthetic limbs, just as Nike slaps a swoosh on shoes. Keep an eye on the USA amputee hockey team fighting for Paralympic status â€” it's sponsored by Aetna. Keeping the disabled out of mainstream sports will hurt only sports itself, just as ignoring steroids hurt baseball. Thousands of vets will return to the U.S. without limbs, and they will want the best replacements. Both the government and the private sector will oblige, and those vets will take their prosthetics to the blacktop and the field. Disabled athletes will get only more competitive. Soon, an amputee will want more than to try out for the Olympics; she will want to play for pay. And while Pistorius fights the IAAF with only a lawyer's help, Anthony Burruto, or someone like him, will have Jerry Buss or Theo Epstein or Mark Cuban on his side. "I can tell you the bottom line is business, nothing else," says Indians GM Mark Shapiro. "If we thought [a disabled person] would help us win a championship and is of good character, well, sure." The future of sports is on its way fast, from MIT and Iceland and Orlando. Shed a tear for the "disabled" today. Tomorrow they might pity you.
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